Saturday, June 29, 2013

The Regret of Having Nelson

South Africa’s former President, Mr Nelson Mandela is in critical condition. Mr Mandela had been hospitalized with a lung infection on the 8th of June, 2013. By the 23rd of this month, Mr Mandela had slipped into a coma and his condition was described as being “critical.” While there are reports of Mr Mandela taking a turn for the better since then, it looks quite likely that Mr Mandela’s time is up.
Mr Mandela’s passing is be an event that unites the world in mourning for one of its few political heroes. Mr Mandela spent 27-years in prison for his struggle against the “apartheid” regime that ruled South Africa. Despite suffering at the hands of his oppressors, Mr Mandela emerged from prison to negotiate a ‘peaceful’ end of apartheid and preached forgiveness and reconciliation between the various peoples who inhabit South Africa.

There’s no doubting Mr Mandela’s greatness and his passing should be mourned. This man stood for everything that humanity considers to be good. He was, as they say, a moral compass for the world.
However, as saintly as Mr Mandela has been, it’s probably a good idea to look at his failures as well as his success when we examine his legacy. What was Mr Mandela’s greatest failure? I’m going to argue that his greatest failure was that he failed to prepare his political party, the ANC and the South African Nation to live beyond him.

Let’s put it very bluntly, Mr Mandela has reached an age where dying any moment should be expected. The man is 94 and despite the good health he’s enjoyed since being released from prison nearly 20-years ago, Mr Mandela has gone way beyond his three score-year and ten. The world, South Africa and the ANC should have been preparing for his passing during the last twenty-years.

Let’s start with the African National Congress or the ANC, the party that Mr Mandela ran for so long. When Mr Mandela was in prison, the ANC was a by word for a wonderful independence movement that embraced all sections of South Africa’s diverse society. It was a movement that had blacks (Zulu, Xhosa and so on) and whites (English and Afrikaners). When the ANC won South Africa’s first ever multiracial election in 1994, there was a sense that the good guys had finally won.

To be fair to the ANC, it’s not the only party that has had a difficult transition from being an independence movement to a normal political party. If you look at election results, the ANC is an exceedingly successful political party – it has overwhelmed everyone else in elections since 1994.

While the current President of South Africa, Mr Jacob Zuma has apparently made remarks that the ANC’s continuous rule is ordained by God, political parties that don’t face opposition usually suffer from the very human malaise of stagnation. After a while, the people who run the party forget that there is a line that separates government and party.

One of the closest examples can be found next door in neighboring Zimbabwe, run by the ANC’s fellow freedom movement – the ZANUPF. Today we think of ZANUPF and its leader, Mr Robert Mugabe as by words for tyranny and abuse. Think of Zimbabwe and you have the instant picture of a country going from bad to worse. However, there was a time when ZANUPF was a party of hope and Mr Mugabe was once regarded as a saint, pretty much like Mr Mandela.

To be fair to Mr Mandela, he has recognized his own frailty while Mr Mugabe has not. Mr Mandela saw to it that he served only one term as President (1994-1999). Even during his presidency, Mr Mandela made it a point to leave the day-to-day running to his duty, Mr Thabo Meki. The way he played out his role as President has been described as being more like a constitutional monarch than a politician – one only has to remember the image of Mr Mandela in a Springbok Jersey (South Africa’s National Rugby Team – a symbol of “White Afrikaner” Pride) handing the Rugby World Cup to Francois Piennar, the captain of the world cup winning Springbok team in 1997.  

You could say that Mr Mandela saw to it that he would never get the chance to indulge and become addicted to institutionalized power of political office. To his credit, Mr Mandela preferred to use his “moral authority” rather than the powers of political office.

While Mr Mandela was exemplary in his ability to give up political office (something few politicians are good at and African ones being particularly bad at it), his two successors proved to be quite different. If anything Messers Mbeki and Zuma have proved to be more like “anti-Mandela’s” in their behavior. Both men have been accused of being intolerant of dissent and of using the powers of office to silence critics. While both men have been relatively benign when compared to many of their counterparts on the continent, their behavior has been contradictory to the “hope” given out during the Mandela era.

One of the worst examples of how Mr Mandela’s successors have behaved can be seen on the stance both men have taken against HIV/AIDS, which afflicts a good portion of South Africa. Mr Mbeki was quite public in his quest to prove that there was no link between HIV and AIDS. He went as far as to delay the distribution of anti-retroviral drugs to public hospitals. While Mr Zuma has yet to officially harm AIDS patients, his public example hasn’t been much better. We’re talking about a man who takes precautions like having a shower after he has sex with a woman he knows to be HIV Positive (he allegedly rapped her).  
What went wrong here? It seems quite obvious that the politicians that succeeded Mr Mandela didn’t have his passion for working for the people. There is a sense that Mr Mandela could have done more to sell his vision to his followers in the ANC and gone as far as to institutionalize non-corruption and power abuse in both the ANC and South Africa. Mr Mandela, as they say, had both the institutional and moral power to do so.

There’s no doubt about the good things that Mr Mandela has done. It’s just such a pity that he didn’t get his party or nation ready to go beyond the “founding father” 

Monday, June 10, 2013

The Inspiration is in the Compassion

Ever since I graduated from Mount House (Churcher’s College’s junior boarding house in the days when Churcher’s had a small boarding community), I’ve not been much of a church goer. I’m afraid to say that despite my record as a decent student of Christian theology, my reasons for entering a church have been limited (usually to listen to a good choir – though I did attend for a while when I had other-halves who were trying to be Christian).

Unfortunately, life in Singapore doesn’t make it easier to be inspired by the church. It could be me but the few church visits that I’ve made in the last few decades have been closer to being at a combination of a rock concert mixed with a real life case study in marketing. I was getting used to the idea that Church was becoming the last place where you’d hear Godly words being spoken.

Thanks to the tough-half’s mother (this 70 plus year-old lady is a devout Catholic and the highlight of her visits to Singapore are my bringing her to Sunday mass) being in town, I actually found a service where Godly words were spoken. The priest at the Cathedral of the Good Shepherd announced to his flock that the inspiration to worship God did not come from, “The Glamour of our Church buildings or the beauty of the liturgy but from the compassion that we show.”

This struck me as being the most amazing thing that I’ve heard in a long time. You could say that I’ve become a little jaded by a decade of being a PR man in Singapore. Life in the past decade has been about the constant search for more and in my case, I’ve been a very active participant in the process of telling people to buy more than what they may actually need or want. When you operate in a business that’s all about creating needs, you tend to get the idea that everything is all about packaging – God, is unfortunately not immune from this.

Singapore is littered with religious institutions that cater to various segments of the market. The Churches have been one of the most aggressive and slickest marketers. They have become so successful in the marketing department that Christianity has become personified by the likes of Joseph Prince, a young man who was destined to live life as an IT consultant until Jesus told (since I don’t speak to Jesus, I can’t verify this) that it was his mission to be a TV personality, wealth coach and author.

If you follow “Give me Your Money” school of Christianity, you’d be inclined to believe that Jesus died on the cross so that you would be entitled to live a wonderful life that would be free of sickness, worry and poverty. As my ex-girlfriend’s pastor said so eloquently, “Pagans chase good things – but good things just come to us naturally.”

Now, it goes without saying that faith is always easier to inspire when you look like the message. Think of how we’re all enamored by the wealth of Donald Trump, always seems to be living in the swankiest homes in the swankiest places on earth. Mr Trump personifies wealth and success despite the fact that the banks are consistently after him.

What is true of Donald Trump has been true of some of our church leaders. I think of the Rev Kong Hee and his wife Sun Ho, who currently facing charges of embezzling money. Despite the obvious evidence that is mounting against them, their followers continue to believe in the good pastor and his wife – I mean how can anyone who finances his wife’s singing career in Beverly Hills to the tune of $28,000 a week be anything but God’s one true representative on earth?

The problem with all these wonderful ideas about God being the source of prosperity, is the fact that Jesus (the Son persona of God) had a habit of blessing and bestowing kindness on social outcast like the poor, prostitutes, tax collectors and so on. Scripture clearly quotes him as saying, “Blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth.” Every available record of Jesus’s life show that this was a man who encouraged us to “love your enemies,” and to “bless those who curse you.”

The records show that Jesus was born into poverty. There are no records to show him owning anything more than the cloths on his back (a topic that even some dispute). Here was a man who told us that God was to be found in the dregs of society. It could be the fact that my theology is nearly two-decades rusty but I don’t recall scripture talking about an entitlement to prosperity and health by being a follower.

If anything, Jesus wasn’t into mass followings. I think he made it quite clear that being a follower could be a nasty and brutish experience. He told people to sell ALL their possessions to become his followers. All four Gospels quote him as saying that a follower had to carry their cross.

So, if you were to follow the evidence that’s laid out by Christian scripture, you’d realize that Jesus was, materially speaking, a pauper and his message was all about things like alleviating suffering of the down trodden.  

This fact goes onto beg the question of what Christ would have thought of the effort of Churches to out-do each other in the effort to build bigger and more glamorous buildings? What he have thought of Pastors who pay themselves salaries that are comparable to those paid to corporate CEO’s?

Ironically the one Church that is starting to answer these questions is the Catholic Church itself. While the Catholic Church has been noticeably quiet in its efforts to raise funds when compared to its more “charismatic” counterparts, it has several centuries before to raise funds. Popes have traditionally lived like monarchs. The Pope is regarded by international law as a “Head of State,” and has to be given the privileges of one.

The current Pope, has now began to challenge these by example. His Holiness dines with ordinary people and instead of conducting services in the beauty of the Vatican, goes and brings the word of God to such charming and acceptable people like prisoners.

Now, wouldn’t be nice if more of today’s self-appointed agents of God, thought of devoting more of their time to bringing compassion to the down and out?  

Wednesday, June 05, 2013

We Need Human Interest as Well as Business Interest

I generally don’t like “reality TV.” However, I make an exception for “Undercover Boss,” a show that follows the experiences of a “boss” who goes undercover in his (they’re mostly men) company. What makes this show so gripping is the fact that the “boss,” without fail gets something of a wake-up call to the realities on the ground. When the “boss” summons his employees to HQ, he ends up doing “nice” things for them. The “boss” in the most recent episode that I watched came up with a wonderful sound bite that summed up his experiences of being “undercover” – “We need to human interest as well as business interest.”

This little nugget has touched me. I’m currently operating in a business environment where the pressure to deliver financial results is greater than ever. At the same time, there is an increasing amount of pressure to ensure that workers are properly treated.

This is particularly so in Singapore, the place where I’ve been based for the better part of the decade. Despite producing lots of “economic” growth, the Singapore government finds itself highly unpopular. Despite breaking its own taboos of not giving handouts (back in the ‘old’ days the Singapore government subsidized housing and healthcare but that was about it – these days, the government actually gives out cash on certain occasions), a government that has been used to total dominance has seen a steady erosion of its parliamentary seats in a two-year period. What’s going on?

Plenty has been said about the problems that modern Singapore faces. However, I think nobody has summed up the key problem as well as that particular boss in “Undercover Boss.” The powers-that-be, need to realize that ‘human’ interest are as important as ‘business’ interest. More importantly, human interest and business interest are not in conflict – if anything, they are good for each other.  

Let’s start with the obvious point – Singapore has prospered by looking after business interest. Our ‘honest’ and ‘business-friendly’ bureaucracy has encouraged foreign investors to create industries that have helped our population prosper. Say what you like about Singapore, but it’s a pretty darn good place to live. Infrastructure is comparable to anything in the ‘developed’ world and you can never underestimate the value of things like safety, especially for your children.

However, there’s a mood of discontent amongst the people these days. Go to any coffee shop in your average housing estate and you’ll find plenty of people grumbling about the way things are falling apart. Talk to enough people and you’ll get the impression that jobs have become a scarce commodity and for those with jobs will give you the impression that the word “job” is a polite term for slave labour.

The question arises on whether the government has become overtly business friendly to the extent that human interest become secondary. I would argue that the problem right now is that powers that be have become obsessed with the wrong type of business – namely spread sheet business.

Once again, I’m knocking spread sheets and figures. You need spreadsheets and such devices to control cost and to increase revenue. At the end of the day, a business has to make money. Having money enables a business to pay staff and contractors as well as shareholder. A business that cannot do any of these things is of no benefit to society.

However, money is just the byproduct of a business. At its very core, a business is an organization of people who are brought together for the common purpose of making money. Think of a restaurant as an example. The business is a restaurant is to bring someone who can cook and someone who can deal with customers together so that they can make money by selling a meal. The restaurant as a business is supposed to make money but it needs the activity of the cook and the waiter to do so. A restaurant needs to look after cook and waiter in order to look after its interest of making money.

If you look at things this way, the argument here is that the Singapore government has forgotten the basic premises of how things work. It has become obsessed with the “paper” of business. As such, the bureaucratic machine becomes obsessed with chasing “economic growth” figures without understanding how those figures translate something real. A government department can trumpet attracting so many dollars in foreign investment without understanding how it was created or what it means to the man on the ground.
What we need is not a neglect of business interest but a reminder that ‘human’ interest is an essential part of business interest. If you watch ‘Undercover Boss’ you will notice that the bosses are always surprised by how much employees are willing to give back to the company in terms of things like new ideas to improve process once they feel they are valued by the company.

Unfortunately these are things that can’t quantified in a spreadsheet and hence they get ignored during the board meeting. However, these are the things that are essential to helping the business thrive. Companies that look after “human interest” are the ones that have innovation and productivity and therefore prosperity – think of companies like 3M and Google as good examples. These companies are known for doing things like providing day care and allowing employees to devote 15 percent of their office time to a personal project.

Now apply this to the national economy. A country that makes its citizens feel like cogs to multinational companies can only so far. Countries that have a culture of making every citizen feel valuable tend to prosper in a more sustained manner. America, for all its current problems, has a culture where people feel valued and are rewarded in some way or another when they contribute.

Perhaps this might be a time for some of our leaders to go ‘undercover’